10 Shady Groups That Crept into Our Election

The bromide says all politics are local. But if examined closely, state politics are looking quite national these days.


Some independent groups ensconced in offices around D.C. and New York have been running their own shadow campaigns to affect the outcomes of races for governor, legislators, state supreme court justices and more around the country.

Overall, independent political groups such as these have taken on a larger role in shaping the messages about who to choose for political office, sponsoring about 1 in every 5 political TV ads about state political races since 2010, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of six years of data from Kantar Media/CMAG.

That’s far more than the roughly 1 in 10 ads that ran in 2010, the year that political spending was rocked by the landmark U.S. Supreme Court Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission opinion and related cases. Those decisions opened the door for such groups by ruling that nonprofits, corporations and labor unions could spend unlimited cash to persuade people to vote for specific candidates.

Since then, hundreds of groups have jumped in to try to sway races for state offices. And TV ads became one of their most effective tools. In the last three years alone, they have spent an estimated $330 million on TV ads.

These groups often act as mudslingers that can trash candidates without repercussions.

The source of their money is sometimes hard to determine, hidden by tax laws, local-sounding aliases such as "Putting Kentucky First" or daisy-chain giving from group to group that make it nearly impossible for voters to know who is trying to influence their votes.

Need help spotting them in the wild? Here’s a field guide to the top 10 national groups that shaped state races in the past three years, based on the TV advertising purchased by the groups and their affiliates:

Republican Governors Association

This national organization based in Washington, D.C., helps elect Republican gubernatorial candidates. With its 2016 victories, the group helped the party achieve its highest number of governorships since 1922. As of 2017, 33 Republican governors will hold office.

DISCLOSES DONORS Top donors who have given at least $3 million in the past three years include: casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Miriam; Duke Energy; chicken farming giant Mountaire Corp.; hedge fund manager Kenneth Griffin and his now ex-wife Anne; ETC Capital, the company behind the energy drink 5-hour Energy; and Koch Industries Inc.

This group and its affiliates spent an estimated $61.3 million to air 110,945 ads.
It supports mainly REPUBLICANS

84% of ads aired were negative
RACES:

  • 2014  72,176 ads
  • 2015   11,444
  • 2016   27,325
  • GOVERNOR — 110,945 ads

AFFILIATES:

  • A STRONGER VERMONT
  • MID AMERICA FUND
  • AMERICAN COMEBACK COMMITTEE
  • CITIZENS AGAINST WALKER
  • COMMONWEALTH FUTURE INDEPENDENT EXPENDITURE PAC
  • GROW CONNECTICUT
  • LIVE FREE PAC
  • PUTTING KENTUCKY FIRST
  • REPUBLICAN GOVERNORS ASSOCIATION 2014 PAC
  • REPUBLICAN GOVERNORS ASSOCIATION IDAHO PAC
  • REPUBLICAN GOVERNORS ASSOCIATION KANSAS PAC
  • REPUBLICAN GOVERNORS ASSOCIATION - MISSOURI
  • RGA RIGHT DIRECTION PAC
  • RGA MAINE PAC
  • RIGHT DIRECTION
  • RIGHT DIRECTION WISCONSIN PAC

RELATED STORIES:

Democratic Governors Association

The national organization based in Washington, D.C., helps elect Democratic gubernatorial candidates, often by teaming up with labor unions to form political groups with state-specific names that sometimes get involved in other types of down-ballot races. As of 2017, Democrats will hold 16 governors' mansions.

DISCLOSES DONORS Unions made up nine of the top 10 donors to the group from 2014 through 2016, along with former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

  • 2014   47,899 ads
  • 2015   10,984
  • 2016   28,948

This group and its affiliates spent an estimated $59.1 million to air 87,831 ads.
It supports mainly DEMOCRATS.

83% of ads aired were negative.
RACES:

  • GOVERNOR — 86,094 ads
  • JUDGE/STATE SUPREME COURT — 1,270 ads
  • STATE HOUSE — 467 ads

AFFILIATES:

  • A BETTER NC
  • ALLIANCE FOR A BETTER RHODE ISLAND
  • MASS INDEPENDENT EXPENDITURE PAC
  • CONNECTICUT FORWARD
  • GOOD JOBS MONTANA
  • GUMBO PAC
  • HAWAII FORWARD
  • GOOD JOBS WEST VIRGINIA
  • JOBS AND OPPORTUNITY
  • KENTUCKY FAMILY VALUES
  • MAINE FORWARD PAC
  • MAKING COLORADO GREAT
  • PA FAMILIES FIRST
  • OUR VT
  • OUR WASHINGTON
  • PROTECT COLORADO VALUES
  • PUT NH FIRST
  • RESTORE ARIZONA'S FUTURE PAC
  • NORTH CAROLINA FAMILIES FIRST

RELATED STORIES:

Republican Attorneys General Association

This national organization based in Washington, D.C., seeks to elect Republican attorneys general. As of 2017, 24 states will have GOP attorneys general. Democrats will hold the office in 22 states and four are nonpartisan.

DISCLOSES DONORS The group shares some of the same donors as the Republican State Leadership Committee, the group it split off from in January 2014. It received more than $4.5 million from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in the past three years, and more than $2 million each from Judicial Crisis Network and casino power couple Sheldon and Miriam Adelson. The American Future Fund, Koch Industries, Altria Group and Purdue Pharma were also big donors.

  • 2014   6,981 ads
  • 2015   3,143
  • 2016  10,412

This group and its affiliates spent an estimated $11.5 million to air 20,536 ads.
It supports mainly REPUBLICANS.

62% of ads aired were negative.
RACES:

  • ATTORNEY GENERAL — 20,536 ads

AFFILIATES:

  • CAROLINIANS FOR FREEDOM
  • MOUNTAINEERS ARE ALWAYS FREE PAC
  • RAGA NEVADA PAC
  • REPUBLICAN ATTORNEYS GENERAL ASSOCIATION COLORADO PAC
  • REPUBLICAN ATTORNEYS GENERAL ASSOCIATION NEW MEXICO PAC

RELATED STORIES:

Republican State Leadership Committee

This national organization based in Washington, D.C., focuses on electing Republicans to legislative and other down-ballot races.

DISCLOSES DONORS The U.S. Chamber of Commerce gave more than $8 million in the past three years, followed by at least $1 million in gifts from Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, Rent-a-Center and tobacco companies Reynolds American and Altria Group Inc.

  • 2014   5,200 ads
  • 2015   1,431
  • 2016   4,814

This group and its affiliates spent an estimated $4.9 million to air 11,445 ads.
It supports mainly REPUBLICANS.

60% of ads aired were negative.
RACES:

  • JUDGE/STATE SUPREME COURT — 8,626 ads
  • STATE SENATE — 1,381 ads
  • STATE HOUSE — 932 ads
  • ATTORNEY GENERAL — 353 ads
  • LIEUTENANT GOVERNOR — 153 ads

AFFILIATES:

  • HARDWORKING AMERICANS COMMITTEE
  • JUSTICE FOR ALL NC PAC
  • REPUBLICAN STATE LEADERSHIP COMMITTEE VERMONT PAC
  • STATE GOVERNMENT LEADERSHIP FOUNDATION
  • BALANCE NY

Democratic Attorneys General Association

The national group, which moved to Washington, D.C., in 2016, tries to elect Democratic attorneys general to office. As of 2017, 22 states will have Democrats as the top law enforcement official compared with 24 that have Republicans. Four are nonpartisan.

DISCLOSES DONORS The organization received $300,000 from the Teamsters union PAC and $275,000 from the National Education Association union in the past three years. Corporate donors Comcast, AT&T and Wal-Mart followed with the substantial gifts to the group.

  • 2014  4,958 ads
  • 2015   1,473
  • 2016   1,624

This group and its affiliates spent an estimated$5.8 million to air 8,055 ads.
It supports mainly DEMOCRATS.

54% of ads aired were negative.
RACES:

  • ATTORNEY GENERAL — 8,055 ads

AFFILIATES:

  • BLUEGRASS ALLIANCE FOR CONSUMER RIGHTS
  • COMMITTEE FOR JUSTICE AND FAIRNESS
  • GRAND CANYON COMMITTEE FOR JUSTICE AND FAIRNESS
  • PROTECT NORTH CAROLINA'S FUTURE
  • SILVER STATE COMMITTEE FOR JUSTICE AND FAIRNESS

League of Conservation Voters

This environmental group based in Washington, D.C., works with its state outlets to push for candidates that support environmental values on the national, state and local level.

DOESN'T DISCLOSE DONORS The organization with more than one million members raises money through dues and donations. The group discloses the names of top national donors but not the amounts given.

  • 2014  3,321 ads
  • 2016   1,476

This group and its affiliates spent an estimated $2.3 million to air 4,797 ads.
It supports mainly DEMOCRATS.

66% of ads aired were negative.
RACES:

  • GOVERNOR — 4,004 ads
  • STATE SENATE — 523 ads
  • STATE HOUSE — 270 ads

AFFILIATES:

  • CONSERVATION VOTES PAC
  • MAINE CONSERVATION VOTERS ACTION FUND
  • MONTANA CONSERVATION VOTERS
  • NORTH CAROLINA LEAGUE OF CONSERVATION VOTERS
  • NYLCV PAC
  • WISCONSIN LEAGUE OF CONSERVATION VOTERS INDEPENDENT EXPENDITURE COMMITTEE

Center for Inidual Freedom

Originally created more than 15 years ago by tobacco executives looking to fight regulations, this group based in Alexandria, Va., generally supports conservative candidates for attorney general and state supreme court justice.

DOESN'T DISCLOSE DONORS The group does not disclose its donors — and advocates for donor privacy — but tax records from other nonprofits show it has received money from the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, the Motion Pictures Association of America and the Coalition for the New Economy. It also received a $2.75 million boost from Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS between 2010 and 2011.

  • 2014   1,122 ads
  • 2015   1,289
  • 2016   1,799

This group and its affiliates spent an estimated $2.9 million to air 4,210 ads.
It supports mainly REPUBLICANS 47% of ads aired were negative

RACES:

  • JUDGE/STATE SUPREME COURT — 2,280 ads
  • ATTORNEY GENERAL — 1,930 ads

RELATED STORIES:

Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund

Formed by billionaire Michael Bloomberg, this New York-based group advocates for gun control. In addition to highlighting candidates' views on gun control, the group formerly known as Mayors Against Illegal Guns has also been active in statewide ballot measures that call for background checks for gun purchases.

DOESN'T DISCLOSE DONORS Michael Bloomberg announced plans to contribute $50 million to the group in 2014 but it is not clear how much he has given since then or who else has contributed to the group.

  • 2014  9 ads
  • 2015  1,860

This group and its affiliates spent an estimated $1.4 million to air 1,869 ads.
64% of ads aired were negative.
RACES:

  • STATE SENATE — 1,860 ads
  • GOVERNOR — 9 ads

Planned Parenthood

Headquartered in New York and Washington, D.C., but with state offices nationwide, this national group provides womens' health services and advocates for reproductive rights.

DOESN'T DISCLOSE DONORS The political arm of the group is not required to disclose its donors but state records in Vermont and Maine show that the Democratic Governors Association and financier Donald Sussman both gave six-figure donations to the state branches of the groups.

  • 2014   701 ads
  • 2016   480

This group and its affiliates spent an estimated $1.1 million to air 1,181 ads.
It supports mainly DEMOCRATS.

39% of ads aired were negative.
RACES:

  • GOVERNOR — 1,181 ads

AFFILIATES:

  • PLANNED PARENTHOOD ADVOCATES OF WISCONSIN
  • PLANNED PARENTHOOD FEDERATION OF AMERICA
  • PLANNED PARENTHOOD MAINE ACTION FUND
  • PLANNED PARENTHOOD VERMONT ACTION FUND

State Conservative Reform Action PAC

This Virginia-based group, which uses the acronym SCRAP, formed in 2014 to advocate for the election of fiscal conservatives for state political offices.

DISCLOSES DONORS The group is heavily funded by conservative megadonors Richard Uihlein and Robert Mercer.

  • 2014   215 ads
  • 2016   860

This group and its affiliates spent an estimated $1.1 million to air 1,075 ads.
It supports mainly REPUBLICANS.

80% of ads aired were negative.

RACES:

  • ATTORNEY GENERAL — 1,075 ads

Ashley Balcerzak contributed reporting.

Sources: Center for Public Integrity analysis of Kantar Media/CMAG data; data from the IRS, Federal Election Commission, state campaign finance filings.

Note: Kantar Media/CMAG monitors broadcast TV signals for political advertising nationwide, capturing ads each time they run. The numbers only cover TV ads, not other kinds of political messages, such as ads that appear on the radio or online. Because CMAG only monitors broadcast ads and national cable ads, local cable ads aren't counted here. These numbers include so-called “issue ads” that mention a candidate but don’t overtly call for the candidate’s election or defeat.

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